SALT LAKE CITY – Mormons opened their spring conference Saturday with a new president at the helm of the church for the first time in 13 years.
In a ceremony known as the solemn assembly, thousands of the faithful stood and raised their hands in a vote of support for newly appointed president Thomas S. Monson.
He took over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February after the death of Gordon B. Hinckley, but the faith traditionally calls for a sustaining vote of new leaders by members during the twice-yearly conferences.
Monson, 80, is the youngest president of the church since 1973. He is the 16th president of the American-born denomination, which claims 13 million members worldwide.
A church elder for more than 40 years, Monson is a familiar face, but many people are wondering what changes he will bring in his new role as "prophet, seer and revelator" of a global religion with 13 million members.
"No one can predict how much his new role will color President Monson's demeanor and direction, but ascending to this office has affected others before him," said Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University.
Rick Armstrong, a professor of communications at Wichita State University in Kansas who has an upcoming book on the communication styles of Mormon church presidents, Armstrong said he'll be listening for any message of change.
"They're usually pretty careful about inaugurating anything new right off the bat," he said. "It's probably going to take a little while."
Monson's practice of recounting personal stories and parables of individuals struggling through challenge by leaning on their faith seems very effective, the professor said.
"It's that personal experience that speaks to Latter-day Saints," Armstrong said.
In comparison, Hinckley, Monson's longtime friend, typically spoke about broad themes and the state of the church while calling on members to deepen their faith.
Latter-day Saints will quickly notice any changes in Monson's style as the more general responsibilities of leading a worldwide church settle on his shoulders, Barlow said.
In February, Monson said there would be "no abrupt changes" in the church, and Barlow believes the statement was sincere. "But this is both a conservative and dynamic movement, so some change will come," he predicted.
Leaders of other religions also have an interest in what occurs inside Utah's dominant faith.
"Because the LDS church is so huge, every time they breathe, wink or sneeze there are just repercussions all over the place," said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of Salt Lake City's First Unitarian Church.
"I'm going to guess that the interfaith community will be looking for how direct or nuanced Monson's speech may be in terms of being more inclusive," he said.